Netflix’s new series Dear White People is a timely show with a cast of characters engulfed in the nuances of race, class and gender. Often times when television strives to include a wide array of issues, LGBTQ folks are stereotypical characters to serve their hetero counterparts (side-eye to your favorite '90s sitcoms).
However, with Lionel Higgins, a gay Black man who is a campus reporter turned “woke” informant, we get a balanced character that can be both smart, sexual, courageous and popular. Higgins, played by DeRon Horton, explores sexual fluidity while confronting racism on a predominantly white campus. He’s not regulated to “the gay character” who only pops up to teach a lazy lesson about acceptance. Instead, he pushes the conversation beyond the gaze of straight people — and moreso on himself. DWP allows us to see Higgins as a realistic person. Higgins is crucial to the story. In other words, his character is more than the bedroom. Thank you to Justin Simien, the creator of DWP, for delivering a Black character we have rarely seen.
Throughout the show, we watch the relationship between Lionel and his roommate, the hyper-masculine straight class president Troy Fairbanks, evolve. Fairbanks, played by Brandon P. Bell, flexes his campus sexual exploits and knack for being the ultimate bro. Despite every possible reason to assume these two characters wouldn’t bond, DWP shatters the myth that a straight man wouldn’t be close friends with a gay man. Sarcastic shocker: Troy doesn’t care that Lionel is gay.
Lionel and Troy have a Black brotherhood that reminds me of the relationship I had with my straight Black college roommate. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, I was upfront with my roommate that I was gay. Honestly, I was scared, but I didn’t want to go back in the closet because of my roommate. However, my sexual orientation was a non-issue as we found a common bond of relating to the trials and tribulations of college dating, regardless of gender. My initial fears of feeling intimidated by straight Black men on campus quickly dissolved as I began to establish mature friendships with men who weren’t scared of differences. I have never seen this in media. DWP broke new ground, especially in terms of allyship. For example, Troy confides with Lionel about his family issues and social anxiety. Lionel “comes out” to Troy and expresses his insecurities with fitting in on campus. Despite their differences, they connect. This can be seen throughout Troy’s campaign for class president as he clings on to Lionel for support, more than his girlfriend, Coco. Troy doesn't suffer from hate or rejection from anyone on campus for being accepting of Lionel. In fact, it makes him more likable to the student body. Lionel’s sexuality is not invisible and Troy is not pretending to be “woke.”
The lesson? There is a way to be progressive without being entrenched in our identities. When Troy spills his emotions to Lionel privately at a bar, he remains the same hyper-masculine over-achiever while still being vulnerable to his gay roommate. Usually, the media portrays acceptance of LGBT characters as a compromise between masculinity or personal self-determination. For Troy to remain a convincing jock while not being homophobic is a progressive step in how we view Black masculinity. Both can exist.
This plotline is a needed stab to toxic masculinity by showing that secure expressions of manhood can co-exist. Troy being pals with Lionel doesn’t make him any less heterosexual just as it doesn’t make Lionel anymore hypermasculine — and that’s fine. What can be respected is the ability to not ignore sexual orientation, but see beyond it and realize that their Black experience at their racist college campus is a cause worthy of fighting against. That’s the lesson. As LGBT folks, Black folks across the board must work together: gay, straight, lesbian, trans or gender non-conforming. We need each other. The power of Blackness goes beyond any other oppressive force.
The views expressed here are solely of the author and not BET.com.
(Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)